So continues my September Stories project. If you missed yesterday’s, go here.
Loterie de Bébés
By Danielle Davis
“It’s a crazy idea, Corinne.” Marie hissed the words so fast in French they all blurred together. But despite the mumbling and the sudden wail from the baby in Marie’s arms, Corinne understood the meaning behind them. Marie grumbled at the child in a soothing voice, even as she darted anxious glares at Corinne from the corners of her eyes.
The baby continued to cry, even as Marie bounced the child onto her opposite hip for support. Corinne corrected Marie’s other hand, which held a bottle whose nipple was coming perilously close to the little boy’s eye. Marie gave her another glare in reply and adjusted her hold on the bottle.
Corinne merely smiled as she adjusted the baby on her own hip and carefully knelt to remove the fingers of another as they clutched at the lace hem of her skirt. “It isn’t, Marie,” she said in a calm voice. She had confidence in the idea, even if no one else did.
In a month the calendar would roll over to start 1912, a year of promises such that France had never known. Her idea would work. It was the end of the year, which meant good things had to happen—there was no time left for them not to.
She walked across the nursery floor to the line of cribs set against the wall. About her, women in white headscarves hurried about, tending to the cries or needs of the other twenty-five babies in the ward. Corinne set the baby she held into one of the cribs, on its belly and rubbed the tiny back with her hand. It wailed and twisted its small limbs trying to get traction. Corinne just hummed to it and patted the back.
The cribs were little more than cages, with tall metal bars painted white to make them seem less so. Each one had a thin mattress in the bottom, not much thicker than a pillow, and a small blue or pink blanket folded at the foot. The row of them against the long side of the wall in the large nursery area always reminded Corinne of teeth.
With all the noise, which never really dimmed so much as it subsided to a dull roar at the quietest of times, she was always amazed at how quickly the infants were able to get to sleep anyway. The sound of it sometimes felt so deafening to her ears, she could barely tell the cry of whatever child she was tending to over the rest of them.
Though the Foundling Hospital was a small building, they still managed to accommodate most of the children that were sent to their doorstep (or sometimes left on it, as was more common in winter). The upper floors were devoted to the older children, while she worked with the infants in the basement nursery.
Organized like a hospital ward, the nursery was white, sterile, and noisy. It was cleaned meticulously every night to keep down the vapors and malodorous spirits that posed a threat to the infants’ and workers’ hygiene. Even with the toy chests stationed around the room, the nursery ward always seemed cold, barren, despite the constant presence of so many small children.
It was no wonder they had such trouble finding homes for the children nestled here.
Marie appeared next to her, with her hands on her hips. Corinne glanced back to see the one little boy asleep in his high chair and the other laying on its back on the floor holding a toy ball to its mouth. “It’s a crazy idea, Corinne,” Marie repeated. “A loterie ? That’s not even legal!”
Corrine shushed her. “But it is,” Corinne whispered back. “I asked my cousin. He is a policier here in Paris. He cannot find anything wrong with it.”
“But they’re children, Corinne! Bébés! How do we even know the people who got them would be suitable parents?”
“We investigate them, of course, same as if they walked through our doors! Honestly, Marie, what would you suggest? Do you think all this–,” Corinne swept her hand around to indicate the hospital nursery “—is working? We have received more foundlings this year than we have over the last two. We cannot hold all of them!”
Marie shrugged under her smock. “So we take what we can and turn the rest away. But you can’t honestly believe such an idea—“
“I can and I do,” Corinne said in a curt tone that indicated the conversation was over. She didn’t add that she’d already spoken to Monsieur Porte, the hospital administrateur.
It had been a short visit. She always tried to keep them that way, as she despised Monsieur Porte with a passion. He had a grating habit of licking his lips so loudly she could hear it. Each flick of the tongue was like a moist smacking in her ear and she hated it. She hated him, too, both for his supercilious attitude and for the bulbous mass of his stomach that always peeked through the straining buttons of his tailleurs—she didn’t know how, with all of the layers he wore, any amount of flesh could still peek through. But as she walked into his office that morning, there they were, small tear-shaped gaps between each button winking at her like flesh-colored eyes as he shifted his weight.
Still, she put on her best smile and smoothed her short brown hair before addressing him. A stack of papers caught her eye, stacked haphazardly at the corner of his desk—they had the hospital’s insignia and what appeared to be rows of numbers. Parfait, she thought.
When he gestured to the chair across from him, she made sure her leg bumped the desk as she turned to sit. The papers tumbled like oversized confetti over the edge and onto the floor.
“Ah non!” she exclaimed as she bent to help pick up the papers. They were already in her hand as he waved her away saying “Non, non” as he struggled his bulk out of the chair and to the floor. He snatched the papers from her hand, but she’d already seen enough to confirm her suspicions—they were account invoices and the numbers worked out in her favor.
Monsieur Porte fell back into his chair with a red-cheeked huff, and she let him have time to compose himself by becoming very interested in smoothing her skirt. When he gestured for her to begin, she wasted no words.
“We have an overwhelming lack of foster parents,” she told him with a direct look. “We are getting more children in than we are moving out and we cannot continue at this pace, Monsieur. I believe we must try something new to gather interest into the plight of these children. Something that will catch peoples’ attention right away.” She took a deep breath. “I think we should hold a loterie de bébés.”
“A baby lottery? Are you mad, Mademoiselle Barre?” He frowned at her. “What makes you think such an outrageous idea would work? Besides, it would be illegal.”
Corinne clenched her jaw and smiled at him. “I can assure it is quite legal, Monsieur. I have already contacted the local bureau de police about it. I merely think it would provide an entertaining spectacle, a new way to celebrate December. And it would work.”
“How can you be so sure? The idea it’s…ridicule!” Monsieur Porte plucked at the bottom of his suitcoat to straighten it. The motion made her think of the way a cat would wash to self-soothe after an irritation. This man is an irritation, she thought. He has no more interest in these children than the people who leave them on our doorsteps.
“Non, pas ridicule, Monsieur. It will be done before Christmas. That gives us three weeks to organize.” She leaned over the desk, letting the full weight of her determination show in her eyes. Monsieur Porte frowned and leaned away from her. “This hospital cannot afford another year like this, Monsieur. We are losing money to protect these children and we cannot turn them out to the streets. Give me a chance to gather interest. Let me hold the loterie. I can use the Christmas season to our advantage in this, I know it.”
Monsieur Porte eyed her. For the first time, she noticed, he allowed his dislike of her to shine openly in his face. Part of her was surprised but only a little—she’d never been a favorite of his, certainly. She spent too much time arguing for resources for the nursery, better swaddling cloths for the infants, more toys, better quality food, and never enough time ingratiating herself to him.
For a moment, she worried his dislike of her would color the logic of her argument and he would say non. Then he nodded, once. She leapt forward, leaning far over the edge of the desk, to grasp his shoulders and kiss each side of his cheek.
“Merci, Monsieur! You won’t be sorry!” She left before the pink marks from her lips had left his cheeks.
Three weeks later, she stood like a barker at a carnival, calling out to the crowds of people passing in the streets. She had dressed in an eye-catching gown of rose-colored cotton with a light turquoise panel down the front of the skirt. It also sported a white applique on the bust and ornate, flowing lace donning the hems of the sleeves and skirt. When she moved her arms in wide gestures over her head, the effect of the sleeves made it appear as if she had an extra pair of arms fluttering about. All in all, it caught the eye, which was precisely her point.
It hadn’t taken long to attract a crowd. The people gazed up at her as she strode across the wooden platform calling out attributes of each child and pointing to the child’s corresponding number on the round metal wheel behind her. She’d commissioned a local clockmaker to make it—it rose behind her in a giant wheel, where each number printed along the rim connected to a curving spoke that arced gently to the inner bolt. The spokes created a spiral effect that Corinne used to her advantage: for every loterie number she called, she reached up with the graceful, flowing sleeves fluttering in the breeze and gave the wheel a firm spin. When it finally came to rest, she pointed with a slender stick to the winning number. It had a dazzling effect on the crowd.
“Who will be next to buy a billet de loterie? Only 15 francs earns you the chance to win one of the beautiful babies looking to find their new family!”
It was like a song. She found if she just kept singing the numbers, occasionally providing dramatic flourishes of her arms or pointing stick, people would stay long enough to realize what she was offering up.
At first people bought their tickets as a joke. She could tell from the way they snickered behind their arms or the way they’d bid and poke an elbow into their companion’s side as if to say watch this, let’s see what happens next.
Corinne acted as if it was all perfectly normal: she on her wooden stage with large burlap sacks adorning the frame along either side of her and across the front rim of the platform, closest to the audience. In each sack hung a baby, like presents stuffed into a fireplace stocking. Around each of the children, she’d tied a large bow of sparkly ribbon.
She gave a dramatic flourish of her pointing stick to one of the babies to her left. “What about this beautiful baby girl? Six months old and loves to smile! She’s looking for a mommy who will dress her like the doll she is. Or this young boy—“ she pointed to a boy hanging on her right “—who wants to grow up just like you fine men–Merci, Madame!” She pointed the stick to a woman in a white blouse and heavy wool skirt dyed the color of blood who had just bought a raffle ticket from Marie.
Estelle, the older matron who ran the number booth, gave Corinne a small nod. Immediately she raised her arms in dramatic arcs over her head. “It’s time to draw another number! Who will it be? Who will win one of these angels to take home for Christmas?” As she gazed over the crowd, she saw them gazing back in rapt attention. Even in the outside air, it seemed everyone was holding their breath for the number.
Estelle reached into a small box and withdrew a scrap of paper. With the dignity of a queen, she marched her thick figure up the stage stairs to hand the paper to Corinne. Corinne noted the number and then handed the paper back.
“We are looking for nuuummmbbbeeeerrr—“ She drew the word out so that it was pitched low and raised to an excited, high note as she gave the wheel a dramatic spin. “–Numéro cinquante-cinq!” She rapped the metal wheel with the stick pointed at 55 and waited for the shriek of delight as someone realized they held the winning billet.
Though there were only sixteen babies to be raffled off, Corinne estimated there were more than fifty people gathered about holding raffle tickets. Corinne was delighted—by that estimate, they’d already made three times as much as a single adoption fee the Foundling Hospital normally charged. She gave a quick grin to Marie, responded with a beaming flash of teeth.
Corinne stepped over to the girl, who hung calmly in her sack to the right of the metal wheel. As if the girl was no heavier than a picture on a wall, Corinne lifted her off the nail and handed her, still in the sack, to Amélie, the thin-faced nursery maid waiting nearest the foot of the stage stairs.
As she turned her sing-song prattle back to selling the loterie, she saw a couple make their way through the crowd to Amélie and cuddle the baby girl in their arms. The woman’s hat obscured Corinne’s view of the baby, but she could tell from the delighted smile on the man’s face that they hadn’t expected to actually get her. He looked like a child opening the first gift of Christmas.
She didn’t need to see Monsieur Porte step up to the couple to know that he was gathering the information the hospital would need to investigate the couple later. One of the hardest points she’d had to make to get the loterie approved was to guarantee the hospital would make sure the people getting the babies were suitable as foster parents—honestly, it was the same practice the hospital already had in place, so Corinne couldn’t see why anyone would expect her to handle it differently now. What did it matter if the parents walked in through the front door of the hospital or won a random loterie raffle? The kids were finding homes and they would be paired with families who wanted a child, same as before. All procedures were the same, it was just the pairing that went a little differently now.
She cast a quick eye over the remaining babies still hanging serenely in their display sacks. Though it had taken half the day to get nearly half the kids raffled off, the size of the crowd assured her the rest would have homes before the sun began to cast purple and orange smears across the horizon.
There were only two weeks left until Christmas. Two weeks left in the year for miracles to happen. Each baby that had already found a home counted as one to her. And she was confident she’d see several more happen before the end of the day. The odds were in her favor.
Total Writing Time: 5 hr.
Source: This MentalFloss article about That Time Paris Had a Baby Lottery